MDes Talks: What Is Architecture? What Is an Architect?

When you study architecture, in most part of the world, you are in a school that only teach this field. Most of your professors are architects or in a closely related profession and you barely have any exchange with someone from other design fields. Sometimes a workshop would occur, but it only last for a week or ten days at most. Although students would come from different backgrounds, sooner or later, everything is blended into one main way of doing projects.

First project of my first year
First project of my first year

I have always been interested in bringing other points of view on architecture from art, photography to different science field. I find the architecture universe way too closed on itself, kind of ironic for a field mostly about bringing people together. Therefore, during my master’s study in France, I went studying civil engineering for a while to see what was going on in the neighbouring school.

Visiting a steel factory with the engineering school
Visiting a steel factory with the engineering school

Now in PolyU, the situation is different. The electives are open doors to explore varied approaches to design in general and to exchange ideas with other students. Then I realise, Architecture and Design are related as they put things into perspectives, but at the same time, the more I am exposed to different approaches in Design, the more obvious the distinctions in the practice of Architecture and Design are discerned.

I took a elective on Branding as an elective (Branding: From Local to Global Strategies) which was a completely new subject matter for me. Branding almost doesn’t exist in the architecture world. Some huge companies brand their name like Gehry Partners, LLP or Zaha Hadid Architects. If this model can allow the companies to grow its business and sustain its influence, it can also trap the architects in one way of doing things, slowing down the evolution of the “style”. Gehry, for example, is asked to design a building in his very own style. Clients are more willing to pay for what they already know and are less willing to take risks on a new design. Obviously, every building is unique but when you arrive at a building, you say “oh, it’s a Gehry” like you would say “it’s a Calder” for a sculpture. A branded building can be sold or rented at a higher price or even during the construction, but it is often not the concern of the architect.

Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris by Gehry
Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris by Gehry

One of the very first lectures I had seven years ago, was about “We only build prototypes. There is not building identical to another one”. From this proposition, architecture is being closer to Art and Crafts. One unique solution tailored for one client, one situation. The same display of elements can never occur twice in the world.

What we build are used by everyone, every day under any conditions. This huge responsibility requires a lot of knowledge and techniques that belong to the Engineering world. Architecture integrate a lot of advanced science to make it possible.

Building are social objects - they make the city and allow people to interact in protected spaces. When emphasising the social aspect, the consideration of power and politics comes into play. From the pyramids to modern high-rise towers, their structures and use of space manifest power and hierarchy.

Buildings is a testimony of the passage of time, telling us history. Some have been standing for many years. They remind us of epic events, revolved era, and also intimacy. Your parents’ house, your old bedroom are displacements bringing memories from your childhood to the present. Architecture is also a work about the senses.

New York skyline
New York skyline

Architects bring to the world complex objects and they must be aware of all the component at every step of the process. In that case, what does it take to be an architect? Drawing a shape is a small part of the job. Realising the project in the real world is the biggest part. Most of the profession is to be a bandmaster, conducting the orchestra properly from the conception to the delivery and sometimes even after. Being an architect is about finding a balance between the dream of the future user, the budget of the client, the reality of the engineer, the atmosphere of the neighbourhood… and at the same time staying true to his/ her vision and knowledge. 

Photo Credit: Mathilde Gattegno

Posted by Mathilde Gattegno – from Paris and love to see the world. Graduated from architecture with an option in civil engineering. Curious about everything, a huge bookworm, a little bit geek and also enjoy music, sports, going outside to take pictures. Hong Kong is a brand new playground!
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MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.
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